The give-'em-hell president

SUN JOURNAL

Truman: The Missourian, whose birthday is today, seemed a common man, but he was an uncommon president whose stock has grown considerably since he left office five decades ago.

May 08, 2002|By Martin D. Tullai | Martin D. Tullai,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Today marks the birth date of Harry S. Truman, born 118 years ago. He was a spunky, determined and highly rated president who will be remembered as:

The first president to take office in the midst of a war.

The only president since William McKinley who was not a college graduate.

The president who ordered the atomic bomb dropped because he felt it would save American lives and end World War II quickly.

The propounder of the Truman Doctrine, designed "to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure."

And he was:

The president who pushed for the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The president who recognized the sovereignty of the new Israeli government in 1948.

The determined president who resisted Russian intimidation in Berlin by breaking the blockade with the Berlin Airlift.

The beleaguered incumbent who, in 1948, saw public opinion polls, newspapers and magazines almost unanimously predict that Thomas E. Dewey would defeat him in the presidential election -- but ignored this and conducted one of the most energetic and effective campaigns ever, achieving surprising results.

The president who ordered United States armed forces into action in Korea on June 28, 1950, in what became known as a "police action."

Certainly, for these and other actions, the "Man from Missouri" will be remembered. But it also ought to be recalled that he possessed a sense of humor and could quip with the best of them.

Truman enjoyed stories of his boyhood. Because of his weak eyes, he once related, he couldn't play baseball. "Since I could not see the ball, they gave me a very special job," he said.

"You mean cheerleader, Mr. President?" a newsman asked.

"No," Truman replied, "umpire."

After World War I, Truman went into the haberdashery business with a friend. But after a few years, the business went under. "What happened?" asked a neighbor.

"Nothing happened," explained Truman. "We just lost our shirts."

After his election to the U.S. Senate in 1934, Truman was amused by the advice he received from an old judge he had worked with on the county court, who had been on the staff of a senator in Washington. Truman liked to retell the advice he received. "Harry," the judge said, "don't you go to the Senate with an inferiority complex. You'll sit there about six months and wonder how you got there. But after that, you'll wonder how the rest of them got there."

Once, a friend asked about the famous photograph taken of him playing a piano with Lauren Bacall sitting on the piano top. "What did Bess [his wife] say when she saw the picture?"

"Well," answered Truman, "she said maybe it was time for me to quit playing the piano."

Truman was known for his salty language. An apocryphal story made the rounds after the birth of his first grandchild. He said to his daughter, Margaret, "When he gets older, I'm going to teach him to talk."

She responded, "The hell you are!"

Upset with an economic adviser who always seemed to give him the "on the one hand -- but on the other hand" type of advice, Truman quipped, "Get me a one-armed economist!"

Although he impressed people as being plain, simple, unpretentious and down-to-earth, those around him soon learned he was in charge. Shortly after he succeeded Franklin D. Roosevelt, Truman telephoned Jesse Jones, a secretary of commerce known as a right-hand man of FDR, and said, "Hello, Jesse, the president has sent John Snyder's name to the Senate for confirmation as federal loan adminIstrator."

Jones asked, "Did the president make that appointment before he died?"

Truman replied, "No -- he made it just now."

When Truman first met Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister, he gave the Russian a tongue-lashing.

"I have never been talked to in my life like this," said Molotov.

"Carry out your agreements," Truman replied, "and you won't get talked to like this."

The election of 1948, when he ran against Dewey, was a tremendous personal victory for Truman. He traveled 31,000 miles and made more than 350 speeches. As he criticized the "do-nothing Republican 80th Congress," the "Wall Street reactionaries" and "the gluttons of privilege," the crowds yelled, "Give 'em hell, Harry."

Truman responded with, "I never give anybody hell. I just tell the truth and they think it's hell."

On one occasion, a woman yelled to Truman that he sounded like he had a cold. The crowd yelled its approval when he replied, "That's because I ride around in the wind with my mouth open."

As the campaign wound down, a newspaper publisher who visited Truman at the White House asked, "What exactly made you decide to run?"

Looking around the room, Truman grinned, saying, "Where would I ever find another house like this one?"

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